Paradise Lost

John Milton’s epic poem about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is so influential that it’s not unusual for people to think they’re remembering a detail from the short (and not very detailed) biblical story when they’re really remembering Paradise Lost. We owe the idea that the fruit Adam and Eve ate was an apple to Milton, not the Bible. And much of how we imagine Satan comes from Milton, who gives him a full-fledged psychology where the Bible is content just to mention him a few times.

Basically, in Paradise Lost, Milton has taken the first three chapters of Genesis and built a massive 12-chapter poem that fills in the gaps with ideas from other parts of the Bible as well as Milton’s own imagination. Genesis provides a simple story, with little explanation of the characters’ thought processes. Milton puts flesh on those characters by getting into their heads and telling us what they’re thinking and showing conversations in which characters explain themselves or share their plans, all with the intent to “justify the ways of God to man.”

I read huge chunks of Paradise Lost during my very first college English class. It felt to me like we spent the whole semester on the poem. I was glad to have read the key passages, if only because it’s one of those masterworks of literature in English that students “should” read. But I never would have revisited it, much less read the whole thing, had it not been for my church’s book group, which chose to read it this fall. We had a wonderful time with it, reveling in Milton’s gorgeous language, puzzling over his theological ideas, fuming at his patriarchal attitude, and laughing at Satan’s futile (but sometimes all too understandable) schemes.

Some have suggested that Satan is the real hero of Paradise Lost. I wouldn’t agree with that; I think it’s clear enough that Milton means for us to see Satan as the enemy. But Satan’s absolute unwillingness to submit to anyone, especially God, is easy for us to understand. This unwillingness to submit is Satan’s defining characteristic, and isn’t it also a characteristic that we love in our literary and cultural heroes? And when he first learns that the tree of knowledge of good and evil is forbidden to Adam and Eve, it’s hard not to agree with his logic:

Knowledge forbidden?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know?
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By ignorance? Is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and faith?

Of course, what Satan fails to note is that God isn’t denying Adam and Eve all knowledge, just a particular sort of knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil. There are plenty of examples in Paradise Lost of God giving knowledge to Adam and Eve. Perhaps what he wants to keep them from is the sort of knowledge that can only come through hard experience.

As one of the members of our group noted, Satan’s also a pretty good organizer. Early in the poem, he conducts a council of demons that is more orderly and productive than many a meeting I’ve been in!  (Satan as CEO. Now there’s a business book idea for you.) I think, though, that Milton would just say that our ability to relate to Satan is a sign of his influence over our values.

Milton’s God is not nearly as easy to relate to as Satan. For one thing, he knows everything before it’s going to happen. And he’s so calm and cool all the time. I grew up with the idea that Adam and Eve had close contact with God in the Garden of Eden, but Milton depicts God as distant, mostly communicating with Adam and Eve through angels who serve as his representatives. Still, God is always watching over Adam and Eve, and Milton makes it very clear that God wants them to choose the right path out of their own free will. As the archangel Raphael explains here:

God made thee perfect, not immutable;
And good he made thee, but to persevere
He left it in thy power; ordain’d thy will
By nature free, not overrul’d by fate
Inextricable, or strict necessity;
Our voluntary service he requires,
Not our necessitated; such with him
Finds no acceptance, nor can find; for how
Can hearts not free be tried whether they serve
Willing or no, who will but what they must
By destiny, and can no other choose?

The frequent references to free will are Milton’s main way of justifying God’s actions in Genesis. He also has God intervene more than God does in the biblical account. When Satan starts snooping around the garden, God actually sends Raphael to warn Adam and Eve again not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve have no excuse; they knew the danger and had the freedom to choose to obey God or not.

Of course, I can’t avoid saying something about the depiction of Eve, which drips with patriarchal assumptions. I don’t, for what it’s worth, think Milton was exceptionally misogynistic. I mostly think he was a man of his time and living with certain embedded assumptions about the proper role of women. For instance, Eve is often kept out of important conversations between Adam and the various angelic emissaries, forcing her to eavesdrop. Milton perhaps just saw that as the way things are. (One of the members of my group said she was being sneaky, at which point I noted that she should have been invited into the conversation.)

To Milton’s credit, he doesn’t depict Eve as a dippy weakling. Yes, she does say to Adam, “God is thy law, thou mine; to know no more/Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise,” but she also puts up some pretty decent arguments against Satan when he’s tempting her. And it’s really interesting that Milton, drawing on Genesis 3:16, has Jesus say to Eve, “…to thy husband’s will/Thine shall submit; he over thee shall rule.” Here, Eve’s submission is depicted as a consequence of the Fall, which is curious when their relationship looks hierarchical from the very beginning. I really think Milton can’t quite wrap his head around what an egalitarian relationship might look like. What even the text depicts as a consequence of sin is, for Milton, the natural order of things.

I could go on and on about the theological ideas in Paradise Lost. There’s the idea of felix culpa—that the Fall was a blessed event because it brought about a greater good, the coming of Christ. Milton doesn’t say this outright, but there are glimmers of this idea in the text. And then there’s Milton’s trinitarian theology and his digs at Roman Catholicism. The whole balance of grace and free will could fill several posts!

But Paradise Lost isn’t just a theological treatise. There are some amazing flights of fancy here. One of my personal favorites is the unholy trinity of Satan, Sin, and Death. And there are long poetic descriptions that don’t advance the story, but that do demonstrate Milton’s gift with the English language and his erudition. He draws upon mythology, science, geography, and so much more. There were, I admit, times when I wanted him to stop with the fancy talk and get on with the story already, but that probably just speaks to my being out of the habit of reading poetry and my tendency to put off my reading until a day or two before book club, forcing me to rush. I did find that the story is not all that hard to understand, particularly when I took the time to carefully read the arguments at the start of each book and when I read the poem aloud.

For a theology and literature geek like me, Paradise Lost is essential reading. But I think lots of readers would appreciate the richness of Milton’s tale. It’s one of the great English-language poems for a reason.

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24 Responses to Paradise Lost

  1. Deb says:

    I read this in college (over 30 years ago) and have never felt the urge to re-visit, but your review has piqued my curiosity, so perhaps I’ll give it a look-see. However, let’s never forget Dr. Johnson’s assessment: “Of course, Paradise Lost is a classic, but not one that you would wish to be any longer.”

    • Teresa says:

      As much as I enjoyed this, I think I agree with Dr Johnson. In the last couple of books, where it became evident that we’re going to see the “future” history of the world, I might have let out an audible groan.

  2. Ingrid says:

    I love this review! My husband is OBSESSED with Paradise Lost and talks about it all the time. Apparently it was his first great “literary love.”

    It’s interesting that you point out that so many of the details we assume come from the Bible are really from Milton, like the apple. So true! The bible only says “fruit” … I only just realized that!

    “I mostly think he was a man of his time and living with certain embedded assumptions about the proper role of women.”

    … I don’t know, I’m tempted to say he was an exceptional misogynist.

    • Teresa says:

      Wow–I can’t imagine this being someone’s first great literary love, but good for your husband!

      And I tend to think of Milton as a typical misogynist living in extraordinarily misogynistic times.

  3. Brenna says:

    Wow. Having read the majority of this in college (like you) I commend you for revisiting it! I can’t say I have the urge to ever do that again. Maybe because it’s only been two years since I graduated, or maybe because I don’t have the ambition to tackle Milton on my own. Either way, I enjoyed your review very much and again, kudos to you for the reread :)

    • Teresa says:

      It’s been (gulp) almost 20 years on the nose since I read this, so I had enough distance to be willing to try again. And I wouldn’t have tried it on my own, being in a book group helped a lot (We meet weekly and discuss as we go.)

  4. JaneGS says:

    You put this back on my TBR list. Fantastic review, Teresa. There’s so much to think about here. I think this might be a bit tough going without a group read or book club, but I’m going to give it a try.

    I hadn’t thought about the notion that so much of what we “know” about the story comes from Milton’s version and not the Biblical account, and the idea of felix culpa is interesting in and of itself.

    Thanks so much for this post. Great stuff!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Milton really does expand on the Biblical story–it’s an impressive work of the imagination and incredibly rich. I could go on and on about the feminist implications alone. (Whether Milton intended it or not, there are layers and layers there. And the theology geek in me ended up marking every reference to free will.

      If you do end up giving it a try, you might
      find the materials at helpful.

  5. Jeanne says:

    It really can be fun to read. I’ve managed to demonstrate this for a few students every time I’ve taught it.

    • Teresa says:

      My group really did have fun with it. I never would have anticipated so much laughter in a discussion of Paradise Lost, but laugh we did. (I think we also may just be slightly goofy.)

  6. Juxtabook says:

    A brave choice for a blog review this! And an excellent review it is. It brought it all back. Like you I read it as an undergraduate and haven’t touched it since but I should go back and read parts if not all again. Thanks for doing this review – very inspiring.

  7. Jenny says:

    I’m so glad I read this with a good professor. The professor who taught Milton at my college only taught the class once every few years, and she was amazing. She was so enthusiastic, and she had many insightful things to say. We spent a lot of time on Eve, and a LOT of time on why Milton really wasn’t of the devil’s party. :D

    • Teresa says:

      This would be great with a good professor who’s really into it. There’s so much to discuss, particularly in the two areas you mention.

      I studied it in a survey class on English lit before 1800, and my professor was more into older stuff, Gawain and Canterbury Tales in particular. (I think her thesis was on the Gawain poet.) The Milton discussions weren’t nearly as satisfying.

  8. Iris says:

    I have never read this and as a religious studies student I am embarrassed that I did not know that our idea of the forbidden fruit being an apple came from Milton. I think I have to read this, eventually. I have to admit though that I am very uncertain whether I will like it.

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  10. Trish says:

    I read this one as an undergrad senior and am grateful for the experience (and thank goodness I have all my written notes in my copy for next time).

    I find it really interesting that you read this with your church group and I bet you had some really fantastic conversations. So many things to talk about–which you discuss here. Satan as the tragic hero (I kind of argue a bit for him as tragic hero–think I wrote my final term paper on the topic!), the role of God and of course the misogyny. I think you bring up a really important point about Milton being a man of his times. I think sometimes we judge authors or even political figures of times past for being this and that (or NOT being this or that), but we look at them through the lens of today.

    Great post, Teresa!

    • Teresa says:

      The conversations were fantastic. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly so much (or even at all) if I’d read it on my own.

      And I can totally see how one might read Satan as a tragic hero, even if Milton didn’t intend for that reading.

  11. rebeccareid says:

    About the not wishing it to be longer: yes the end really drops off. Did Milton get tired? I agree that is is obvious from the beginning that Milton means for Satan to be the villain and yet Satan is by far the most interesting character. I found the “good” very boring by the end, so the last books were boring because there wasn’t so much of Satan. He added color. Maybe, as you say, because we can all relate… he he.

    “I don’t, for what it’s worth, think Milton was exceptionally misogynistic.” I don’t either. I’m with you that just seemed representative of the time.

    “But Paradise Lost isn’t just a theological treatise. There are some amazing flights of fancy here.” This is why I like it. Although, as we mention above, the end drags. It really lacks the magical depths that we see in the very beginning. I enjoyed my reread in May, but I was pretty tired by the end.

    • Teresa says:

      I just got back from book club, and as I was walking in, one of the other group members was right in the middle of saying how boring she thought Milton’s Eden seemed! I agree—all that gardening does not sound like fun. Satan was by far the more interesting character.

  12. bfrank says:

    I’m so glad I went to your blog and read your entire review of Milton’s Paradise Lost. I hope other LibraryThing’ers will do the same thing.

    How refreshing! And how wonderful it must be to read such a work in a church reading group. I think Milton took misogyny one step further than was conventional even in the Puritan Age. His Eve’s just a little too hunky-adoring to be as interesting to most men as she is to her admired Adam.

    And those Homeric (or epic) similes do go on a little long for modern readers, don’t they. My advisor (and Milton professor) had me do my honors thesis on these, which led to my master’s thesis on the theory of decorum. All of that just got too heavy for me, so I dropped out of graduate school and when I returned for my doctorate I had become a Romantic. William Blake’s Milton puts the “old master” in his place.

    But C.S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost does make a strong case for Milton’s “fortunate fall” as truly Christian and against the idea that the rebel Satan was a surrogate for the Puritan/rebel Oliver Cromwell — and his partisan defender John Milton

    I have just returned to PL after many years’ absence. I found a copy of the old Merrit Y. Hughes edition in a used-book store — just like the one we used as a textbook in my undergraduate Milton course (w/o my marginal notes, unfortunately — I lost that one long ago). For several years thereafter I read PL at least once a year every year (usually at the time of the winter holidays). This time I went immediately to the Adam/Eve dialogues, for my wife and I have just been re-reading Mark Twain’s diaries of Adam and Eve. I’ve decided that Twain was satirizing Milton, not Genesis — or maybe he, too, just had Milton and Genesis mixed up in his own mind.

    Anyway, thank you for your thoughts. Delightful!


    • Teresa says:

      Thank you so much for your comment! My book group still talks about PL from time to time. I think it was a highlight for everyone involved.

      And you remind me that I really want to read Lewis’s Preface to PL.

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